The Overjustification Effect

All user experiences we create should be reward enough for the user.

I have read a lot of research about the effects of gamification over the past 6-7 years. I really believe in the principle of it and it was baked into some the earliest designs I had for Graphicly. Employed correctly it can motivate and engage users.

However part of one research paper had a warning which stuck with me for really long time. Published by Carroll and Thomas in 1988, a surprising long time ago, Fun, discussed an experiment studied by Mark Lepper, David Green and Richard Nisbett in 1973.

In the experiment colour pencils were given to children to play with. Half the children were left to simply play with the pencils, while the other half were rewarded for doing so. A slightly surprising result occurred. Those told they would be rewarded for playing actually played less with the pencils and enjoyed using them less.

Lepper, Green and Nisbett suggested that the intrinsic reward of the colour pencils alone was a stronger incentive than the extrinsic reward offered for playing with them, and that in fact, offering the reward weakened the attractiveness of the pencils.

The fun of the original task was lost when the children knew an reward was coming.

This is an example of something that has come to be known as the overjustification effect. I tried to keep that in mind while designing at Graphicly and in future products, as a warning. However more and more I am starting to see the results of this experiment as a challenge.

All user experiences we create should be reward enough for the user. If we build things to match the user’s needs without causing any frustration, we will create joy for the user and any tricks, rewards or games would just get in the way.

This thinking can also help focus when building an MVP (minimum viable product). At Graphicly we had a wonderful reading experience. One which to date I still believe was the best reading experience for digital comic books. In retrospect that may have been enough to attract a user base at the start, we could have focused development on that and got the product out earlier.

We suffered a little from feature bloat then and honestly again with Audacious, lesson well and truly learned. Every time I plan a product now, I imagine colour pencils and set the challenge to create something which is reward enough to use.

Photo credit: Gabriel Garcia Marengo –

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